This is Christie Watch’s second on-the-scene report from CPAC. The first installment appeared on Thursday. On Tuesday, the third and final installment will present an overview of CPAC’s three days, which ended Saturday.
It’s no surprise that, for the second year running, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the annual straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul gained 31 percent in the straw poll, with Ted Cruz second with 11 percent and everyone else in single digits. Paul’s win, though hardly signals an edge in the race for 2016—after all, Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon who became a hero to conservatives when he rattled off a string of right-wing shibboleths at a 2013 prayer breakfast with President Obama sitting just feet away, came in third with 9 percent of those polled. Still, at CPAC at least, Paul was a rock star.
Paul, the libertarian-conservative and Tea Party favorite—thanks, mostly to the years-long record of insouciance by his father, Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman—drew adulation, followers and fans everywhere he went at CPAC. At a book signing just a hour or so before he spoke, hundreds of people—mostly young people, college students and those in their 20s—lined up in eager anticipation of a handshake during a book-signing by Paul, and everywhere at the conference attendees sported “Stand with Rand” stickers.
When he came out to speak at the ballroom, the place was packed, standing room only. Paul, dressed casually in jeans—a distinct difference from the more buttoned-up look of other speakers—entered to the raucous strains of Chumbawamba’s "Tubthumper": “I get knocked down, but I get up again, they’re never gonna keep me down!” The music continued during Paul’s tumultuous reception, which could only be described as rapturous, a lengthy standing ovation punctuated by war whoops and cheers, and he basked in the cacophony. And Paul didn’t disappoint his followers, many of whom are independents and libertarians (and Libertarians), many of whom don’t really identify with the Grand Old Party. Paul made it clear that the Republican party is hardly his North Star, either: “You may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not. I’m talking about electing lovers of liberty. It’s not good enough to choose the lesser of two evils.”
More war whoops. And, while Paul has clearly set his sights on the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, he’s not afraid to scare establishment Republicans with the threat of a breakaway movement. During his talk, Paul seemed almost to look past the gray-haired GOP right-wingers in the hall and speak directly to the young people who make up his activist base. Early in his fifteen-minute address, Paul spoke directly to them: “Will you, the next generation of liberty lovers, will you stand and be heard?’
Though Paul, like every CPAC speaker, tossed a few rhetorical bombs Obama’s way on the usual issues, he focused nearly the entirety of his talk on a single topic: the surveillance state, domestic spying, the National Security Agency and drones. (Recently, along with Bruce Fein, Paul filed a lawsuit over the NSA data-collection program, and as he pointed out to cheers from the multitude, he filibustered “when the president refused to rule out droning an American.”) In his talk, he said, “The NSA monitors your every phone call! [And] I believe that what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business!”